It started with the hope of getting enough people together to form two teams for pickup games, maybe 30 guys, to play a little “boot” hockey, a game they weren’t even sure how to play. They just wanted to play something, anything, for exercise and activity to get through the Wisconsin winter.
They had this modest ice rink, just a year old, but Sister Bay wasn’t home to all that many hockey players so it was tough to get much of a regular game going. That would change, as would winter life in the community, when Eric Scheller suggested a game he called “boot” hockey that he had played for the first time over vacation in Minnesota.
He said the game was comparable to hockey except you wore boots instead of skates – the rules, though, seemed similar and the surface was the same. Scheller brought it up with Brian Fitzgerald, who had been the driving force behind building the ice rink a year earlier. “It was a lot of fun, and I knew Brian played hockey,” Scheller recalled, “so I told him I thought it would be pretty fun if we tried getting a game of [boot hockey] together.”
“It’s odd how it happened,” remembered Fitzgerald, potter and owner of Ephraim Clayworks. “I wanted to organize a pickup night for hockey and Eric kept telling me we should play this ‘boot’ hockey and telling me how much fun it would be.”
“Brian was like ‘yeah, sure,’ but he was still a hockey guy,” Eric said.
Fitzgerald said he wasn’t quite sure what game Sheller was talking about, and thought he was referring to a form of street hockey he played with a tennis ball in his youth growing up in the Twin Cities. “So Eric and I were talking about it, and finally I was like, ‘What sport are you talking about?’” Fitzgerald explained. “That’s when we figured out that what he was calling ‘boot’ hockey was actually broomball.”
The sport resembles hockey in many ways, but it’s played with a ball that looks and feels like a shrunken soccer ball. Instead of hockey sticks, it’s played with sticks with hard rubber ends, molded in a shape akin to a broom. Early versions of the sport actually used brooms dipped in wax for sticks, hence the name.
Fitzgerald began researching rules of play and soliciting sponsors, hoping to convince about 35 people to commit to playing some pickup games on a regular night. To his surprise, he soon had eight sponsors lined up, but finding equipment proved a bit more difficult. They were starting from scratch, and when he approached Dunham’s Sporting Goods in Sturgeon Bay, they had never heard of the game. He ended up finding what he needed in Green Bay and ordered a bunch of sticks, balls and helmets.
But they would also need bigger goals than they used for hockey. For these Fitzgerald took the dimensions to local welder Art Weborg. “I knew if I showed him a picture of the net he could build it,” Fitzgerald said. In an early indicator of how the game would be embraced by the community, Fitzgerald said Weborg built the nets for little more than the cost of the metal. Then the Weborg fishing family donated the netting and strung the goals. Now they had the hardware, but would anyone show up to play?
It doesn’t seem like it would be an easy sell to convince people to go out in the cold and slip around on the ice playing a game nobody had even seen before. Stunningly, they ended up with about 120 people playing that first year, no small feat for a sport which doesn’t exactly lend itself to verbal translation.
A typical sample of an effort to explain the game:
“So, what do you folks do for fun up here in the winter?” they asked.
Well, we play broomball.
“You play a sport with a broom?”
No, it’s not a broom. But it’s sort of shaped like one.
“How the heck do you play it?”
It’s like hockey, actually. Only without skates, or a puck.
Slow, skeptical nods. “But it’s on ice?”
“So, can you move very fast without skates? Can you move at all?”
Well, no. Not really. It’s not a very fast game at all, and it looks kind of clumsy. You fall a lot, swing and miss. It’s not a good way to impress the ladies.
More slow nods, feigning understanding. “So you just play in your shoes on the ice?”
No, not normal shoes anyway. You see, they’re kind of spongy on the bottom.
Yeah, it gives you better traction. Not great traction – you still fall a lot – but better. It’s a lot different than playing with tennis shoes on. Trust me.
Somehow, a similar line of dialogue convinced people to give it a shot. “I don’t know why it took off,” Scheller said. “Maybe it was just because it was something new and people were intrigued. And it seems like seven or eight years ago there were a lot more young people up here willing to try it.”
Charlie Most, Liberty Grove Town Chairman, helped build the rink and played for J.J.’s/La Puerta in the league’s first year. “I think its popularity speaks to how much people needed some kind of social activity in the wintertime,” he said.
Broomball quickly grew into much more than a game or recreational outlet. After games on Wednesday nights the players would gather at Husby’s for food, drinks, and friendly (and sometimes less than friendly) trash talk. By year two other businesses caught on.
“That next year J.J. got smart and started opening up Wednesday nights,” Most recalled. “So broomball really was responsible for getting another business to open another night of the week.”
“Whoever thought we’d all go out on Wednesday nights in the winter?” said league commissioner Mike Mead. “It’s become a really great time and a great thing for the off-season.”
It didn’t take long for a sport nobody had ever heard of just weeks before the first game to become the focal point of the week in January and February. In its second season the league boasted 10 teams.
The Teresa K. Hilander Community Ice Rink became the center of winter activity in Sister Bay. On game night there are often well over 100 people of all ages at the rink at any given time – parents watching kids, kids watching parents, friends there simply to taunt friends as they flail on the ice. The broomball league has been integral to the growth of the facility. “Broomball has done a lot financially to support that rink,” Fitzgerald said. “Broomball pretty much paid for the new lights at the sports complex,” a $14,000 tab.
The league is co-ed and ageless. High-schoolers battle it out with 50-somethings, and one doesn’t have to be in impeccable shape to compete. As Fitzgerald says, “Ice is the great equalizer.”
“It’s similar to hockey and soccer,” he said. “Anticipation is a huge part of it. Speed is great, but you can over-commit. If you don’t time your slide you can actually hustle too much.”
Passing is the biggest key to victory, and players who use their body to their advantage by sliding on their knees or diving headlong can be especially effective. As in hockey, great stick-handling is a huge difference-maker but is hard to come by in a sport with little history and only a two-month season.
Players with a hockey history, like Fitzgerald, Freddie Bexell and cousins Steve and Rick Chomeau have been among the league’s best over the years.
Year one was an experiment. Few people knew the rules, and the officiating duties were filled by a few players willing to don the stripes when their game ended. The biggest challenge in year one, however, was footing. Today, most players wear specially designed broomball shoes with sponge-like bottoms that grip the ice and help you stop and start. But in the beginning nobody knew they existed, unleashing some of the more imaginative and underappreciated ingenuity of the local craftsmen.
“None of us had shoes so guys started getting creative,” Fitzgerald said. “Kenan Bunda was the first to get wise and glued sandpaper to his tennis shoes. Someone else tried track spikes or nails, but ‘Turtle’ was the best. He used shoe-goop or something and glued gravel to the bottom of his shoes.”
The various footwear additives proved hazardous for Fitzgerald’s original love, however, because foreign objects started ending up in the ice, which made it bad for skating. When players discovered there were actually shoes made for the surface, they became a precious commodity. “Only a few guys had them at first,” Fitzgerald said. “Then shoes would float around, one pair of shoes might be used for four games. They were coveted. I thought we might run into problems like back when people were getting mugged for Air Jordans; we’d have people getting mugged for broomball shoes.”
Fortunately the league gained better footing than those original shoes, and this winter marks its ninth season of league play. “It grew into something really competitive,” Most said. “Now people talk about it in the off-season and strategize all year long.”
The season ends with a day-long Saturday tournament in March that draws the entire community. It’s complete with food, drink and bragging rights, with the winner awarded the coveted Hilander Cup, currently in the hands of the Sister Bay Bowl.
The league and the Teresa K. Hilander (TKH) rink, however, have the hands of the Northern Door community all over them.
TKH (Teresa K. Hilander) Rink Heart of a Community
You can see the glow from the lights above Sister Bay’s Teresa K. Hilander Community Ice Rink from the middle of the village hundreds of yards away. On a winter Wednesday night you can follow those lights down Mill Road and take a left on Woodcrest, where you’ll find a sizable portion of the community assembled at the rink.
Wednesday night is game night for the Door County Broomball League, when players, fans and families gather at the now 10-year-old rink in a small-town scene straight out of the movies. You may have to park in the field, as the parking spots are usually full, then head into the warming house to lace up or grab a cup of hot chocolate (if you’re just there to watch).
On your way out to the rink you’ll have to watch for little kids, the occasional hockey puck, and wayward broomballs. The chill hits you hard in those first few steps as your breath rises visibly before you, but the warmth of the small fire outside soothes the cold, as does the scene before you: a resilient and generous community gathered together to play on the ice.
The scene comes courtesy of the efforts of many masons, carpenters, landscapers, painters, businesses and volunteers who gave their time and money to build an ice rink a decade ago.
Brian Fitzgerald was 25 and had just moved to the community when he began the effort to build the rink in 1994. A huge fan of snow sports who calls winter his favorite time of the year to be outside, he had spent the previous winter in the winter sports haven of Duluth, Minnesota.
He grew up playing hockey in the Twin Cities and hoped to get pickup games going here, but it was seeing kids struggling to play that inspired him.
“I remember seeing all these kids skating at the old rink and thinking it’d be great for them to have a good place to play with lights,” Fitzgerald said. “I wanted there to be activities for younger people to enjoy down there, and I figured even if we just played pickup broomball it would be great.”
Though dozens of area craftsmen contributed to the effort, most credit Fitzgerald with making it happen. One of them, Mike Kahr, has been a tireless contributor to the rink and serves on the TKH board. “That was really Brian’s thing,” he recalled. “He got it all going.”
Fitzgerald has called the building of the rink one of his proudest moments. “The sense of community you got, just to see how everyone was willing to donate,” he said. “And a lot of it was for the kids. It was great just to see how many people would step up.”
Originally, the rink was located a few long strides away on Mill Road, and there was much bitterness when it was moved four years ago to make way for the new fire station. The old spot was a perfect location with a natural wind block and cozy feel. It’s also the place where the sweat was dripped to build the rink and warming house.
Fitzgerald said it was hard to swallow the move, but one only has to look at how much work it has taken the village to construct the new rink to realize the effort given to the original project. “You see the value of what the volunteers contributed when you see what it cost the village to replace the rink,” he said.
TKH remains a community project. A small cadre of dedicated volunteers made up of Kevin Duffy, Michael Mercier, Kahr, Linden Erickson, Rob Bussler, and Mike Mead keeps the rink open, putting up boards, flooding and re-flooding the ice, and administering the facilities. “The rink simply could not survive without the volunteers,” Kahr said.
The initial vision was simple, but it would grow into something much bigger. Without those efforts a decade ago, there would be no rink at all today, and if the village should ever follow through on its plans for a bigger and better rink, it will make their work even more lasting and significant.
The old spot may be gone, but the heart and generosity put into it endures.